DARREL KOEHLER: The Prairie Gardener — Rhubarb

Even though plants may look ripe for picking in August, most gardeners say you shouldn’t harvest rhubarb after the Fourth of July.

That is good advice, since rhubarb becomes coarse and woody and loses its flavor later in the summer. And continued harvest through the summer months weakens the rhubarb plants and reduces the yield and quality of next year’s crop.

But if you are looking to plant some rhubarb, it’s not too early to start thinking about it now. Spring and early fall (September) are the best times to transplant rhubarb, although potted plants can be placed in the ground anytime.

Rhubarb is a very hardy perennial that does well in Northern states. Sadly, it doesn’t grow in the Sun Belt. It requires a cold treatment before it will grow. (Some is shipped out, but many in the South take it for Swiss chard.)

The rhubarb plant originated in Siberia. It traveled down the old Silk Road to Asia Minor before spreading to northern Europe. Early Europeans ate the root, not the stalk. The stalks are edible, but not the leaves, which are poisonous.

It is said that rhubarb, also known as pie plant, should be in every garden. Plant it somewhere out of the way, in a bright, sunny spot, where the plants will not be disturbed. The area also should be well-drained.

To get started, dig a hole and put in some rotted manure and compost. Then cover the roots with about an inch of soil.

Rhubarb shouldn’t be harvested the first year, and it’s important to give plants a lot of fertilizer and water. The second year, the plants will send out seed pods, which should be removed as they form.

You can either get your rhubarb from a friend or neighbor, purchase by mail order or visit a nursery. The best way is to buy a plant already potted.

Many of the older rhubarb plants that we see around here have a mixture of yellowish-green and reddish stalks. These are known as pineapple rhubarb plants and are an old variety.

The best-known variety of rhubarb is the Canada Red, apply named since the stalks are red all the way the through. They would work well even as an accent to your garden. Other varieties include Valentine and strawberry.

You won’t be disappointed if you decide to plant rhubarb because there is nothing better than a bowl of warm rhubarb sauce in the dead of winter, when the mercury is minus 30 — unless it’s a pie, crisp or jam!

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